Monthly Archives: December 2012

Top Wines of 2012 are “Relentless”





Shafer “Relentless” Napa Valley 2008


Clos des Papes Chateaunef-du-Pape 2009

It began in late November, as it does each year. Wine Spectator magazine unveiled wines #10-6, then #5-1 and finally their entire 2012 top 100 list of “the year’s most exciting wines”, an apt description.  If previously rated quality was the only factor, we would be surrounded by the Clos des Papes Chateaunef-du-Pape 2010 (98pt/$128) and Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Family Estate 2009 (96pt/$145), both very fine, but expensive, or the highly touted wines that are nearly impossible to find.  Besides, we can’t overlook price, uniqueness or our personal preference for a specific varietal.  Kudos to Wine Spectator for annually undertaking this arduous task and giving us a global snapshot of the releases in 2012. One can purchase a copy of their latest issue for the complete details or read the following synopsis from someone who enjoys analyzing national, regional and varietal trends.

Without question, my major takeaway from the list is that 2012 is the “Year of Syrah.”  To prove, or at least defend my moniker, nine (36%) of the top 25 wines included syrah as a single-varietal or in a blend.  To be fair, France’s Southern Rhone Valley, using syrah in their mélanges, had a good year.  However, included in that same top 25 were single-varietal syrah from Paso Robles, Edna Valley and the magazine’s “2012 Wine Of The Year”, Napa Valley’s Shafer “Relentless” Napa Valley 2008 (96pt/$60), a blend of mostly syrah with 18% petite sirah.  Finding the #1 wine in the Napa Valley is fairly common, the fact that it was syrah, not cabernet sauvignon, is a headline.  The real story here is the meticulous winemaker Elias Fernandez.

Born to an immigrant father and locally raised mother, both farm laborers, Elias Fernandez grew up in the Napa Valley vineyards before leaving to pursue a Fullbright music scholarship at the University of Nevada, Reno.  Missing his roots, he eventually transferred to the UC Davis, earning a degree in winemaking studies. Since graduation, he as worked closely with the Shafer family as an assistant before becoming the winemaker in 1994.  He pushed for the expansion of syrah vineyards and was relentlessly hands-on in every aspect of the wine of the year.

Shafer winemaker Elias Fernandez

Shafer winemaker Elias Fernandez

ET COSME GIGONDAS 750 ML 09, page 1 @ Preflight

Chateau de St.-Cosme Gigondas 2010

While we again see the Chateaunef-du-Pape region displayed throughout, the #4 Clos des Papes Chateaunef-du-Pape (98pt/$128), a former wine of the year and recurring top ten designee, stepped aside as the neighboring Gigondas appellation produced the #2 Chateau de St. Cosme Gigondas 2010 (95pt/$41) assuming stature as the top French wine. Certainly, at less than one-third the cost of its famous neighbor, this Grenache-based Rhone Valley blend was attractive to the judges.  Demonstrating the global strength of syrah, the #3 Two Hands Shiraz Barossa Valley Belle’s Garden 2010 (95pt/$69), one of the best 21st Century wines, comes from the acclaimed Australian winemaker that performs miracles with the varietal.

The Reverence of Napa Valley



Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley Reserve 2009

In a year of surprises, the Napa Valley maintained its supremacy with the Wine of the Year, two Cabernet Sauvignon, two merlot and a Carneros chardonnay, all from established vineyards.  The #8 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley Reserve 2009 (94pt/$45) puts the time-honored winemaker back on the list after a long absence. Aged for 15 months in mostly new French oak, several periodicals have generated flattering reports of the wine’s texture and flavors.  St. Helena’s Spottswoode Winery, long-time producer of fine quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, earned a spot on the list with the #80 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Family Estate 2009 (96pt/$145).  I am very familiar with this “liquid velvet” wine that has moved into icon status within the high-end market.

The #63 Neyers Chardonnay Carneros 2010 (93pt/$29), a reliably good wine, was the sole chardonnay from the Napa Valley

Neyers Chardonnay Carneros 2010

Neyers Chardonnay Carneros 2010

and only one of two on the list.

Celebrate the French

 Without fail, great wines are produced, vintage-to-vintage, in France.  Twenty-two wines on the list were French and, more impressively, three of the top five and six of the top 20.  Aside from the aforementioned classic wines from Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley, the list included very reasonably priced wines such as the #39 Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Gris Alsace Les Princes Abbes 2010 (92pt/$20), with forward flavors pleasingly influenced by local volcanic soil.

Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Gris Alsace Les Princes Abbes 2010

Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Gris Alsace Les Princes Abbes 2010


Presence of the Central Coast

 With the typical Northern California powerhouse regions in mind, the fact that half of the California wines on the 2012 list originated from vineyards located between northern Santa Barbara County and the Santa Cruz Mountains illustrates a shift that sees new terrior matching the standards of the old.  On a more local shift, nearly all of the five Paso Robles releases on the list included syrah, a change from the typical Rhone’s and Zinfandel.  The exception #72 Turley Zinfandel Paso Robles Presenti Vineyard 2010 (93pt/$35) marks a successful turn since the Turley Family purchased the old Presenti Family Vineyards years ago.

One of the highest rated wines on the roll is the #21 Saxum James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles 2009 (97/$85), making successive appearances since being named 2010 Wine of the Year. Yielding less than 1,000 cases, this acclaimed wine is rarely available.  While wines like the #19 Booker Syrah Paso

Booker Syrah Paso Robles "Fracture" 2010

Booker Syrah Paso Robles “Fracture” 2010

Robles “Fracture” 2010 (96pt/$70) and the #76 Austin Hope Syrah Paso Robles Hope Family Vineyard 2010 (93pt/$42) have emerged onto the scene, I was delighted to see the #40 Eberle Syrah Paso Robles Steinbeck Vineyard 2010 (93pt/$24), from a well-respected, long-term eastside winemaker, gain recognition.  All of his wines are worthy of your palate and the cave tour is excellent.

Good value Pinot Noir, at times an oxymoron, truly personifies three Central Coast wines that represent much of the region.  Sourced from vineyards in San Luis Obispo to Gilroy, the grapes that encompass the #28 Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast Thirty-Fifth Anniversary Vintage 2010 (93pt/$24) are fermented and aged separately, then blended to age harmoniously in the bottle for nearly a year.

Located at the intersection of its namesake, the Clark and Telephone (Rd.) Vineyard is a coastal property in north Santa Barbara County, owned by Belle Glos Winery, that produces the sweet spice-driven #77 Belle Glos Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley Clark and Telephone Vineyard 2010 (93pt/$44).  Located one hour north in Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands, Morgan Winery

Morgan Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Twelve Clones 2010

Morgan Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Twelve Clones 2010

sourced grapes from notable vineyards, Garys’, Tondre Grapefield and their own Double L for the #83 Morgan Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Twelve Clones 2010 (92pt/$32).


Two classic wines and consistent delegate’s to the list represent the Santa Cruz Mountains region, above Monterey. The #26 Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2009 (94pt/$55) belongs in any discussion of California’s best and the historic #94 Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2009 (95pt/$150) whose early vintage was the top wine of the 2006 Reprise Paris Tasting.



Evolution of the Pacific Northwest

Nine percent of this year’s most exciting wines were produced north of California with Oregon honing their classic red grape and Washington expressing their diversity.

Oregon placed three pinot noir wines on the list, each from a different region and two wines, the #7 Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard

Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Estate 2009

Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Estate 2009

Estate 2009 (94pt/$40) and the #14 Maysara Pinot Noir McMinnville Estate Cuvee 2009 (94pt/$32), were included in the top twenty. Both wines are reasonably priced and representative of a tremendous vintage statewide.  Argyle, another top pinot noir producer, once again contributed the #18 Argyle Extended Triage Willamette Valley 2002 (96pt/$70), always aged and, arguably, our country’s best sparkling wine.

Argyle Extended Triage Willamette Valley 2002

Argyle Extended Triage Willamette Valley 2002

Washington State contributed four different varietals, a cabernet sauvignon, merlot and rose’ from the Columbia Valley and the acclaimed #22 Cayuse Syrah Walla Walla Valley Cailloux Vineyard 2009 (96pt/$75) from their neighbor to the east.

Amidst these great wines that reflect trends of the 2012 releases is the #51 Bodega Norton Malbec-Mendoza Reserva 2010 (90pt/$18), vintages consistently available at local outlets for under $20.  I enjoy this wine occasionally, receiving a bottle as a gift at least once a year.  Here’s to a fantastic 2013.



In Pairing Wine and Cheese, “Honor the Wine”


Traditional party favorites in the States, wine and cheese are daily staples for most Europeans.  In most instances, they both begin and lengthen the meal.  Through the emerging interest in fine cheeses from American culinary consumers, the need for suitable wine and cheese pairing becomes as natural as the two are companionable.

For centuries wine and cheese have been part of every hearty meal in many parts of the world.  Both are examples of “delayed gratification” and good planning to turn cow’s milk into cheese for the winter and grapes into future wine.  More than the history, they are similar and often described by their mild or robust flavors, creamy or firm textures or acidity.

Each of us, on average, eats nearly 35 lbs of cheese annually, but, on whole, are becoming more discriminating in our taste. Today, we choose from the milk of cows, goat’s, sheep and in rare instances, Water Buffalo, asking if it is raw or pasteurized and if the end product is soft or hard with a natural or washed rind. There is reason to be so discerning.

As an experiment, next time you have a recipe calling for Parmesan cheese, substitute with fresh pecorino-toscano, an ancient Italian cheese from sheep’s milk, often available in local markets.  Developed through a lengthy process and always aged, pecorino-toscano flavors are fresh and simple with a nutty, buttery texture. It will enhance the flavor of food and pair well with a sangiovese such as the local 2009 Leona Valley Winery Sangiovese, one of the best that I have recently enjoyed.

As a starting point to begin to enjoy wine and cheese pairing, the following European cheeses are recommend jas delicious individually and good “vino” partners.



Mahon (Sp)          cow’s milk      Spanish red/syrah

Manchego Sp)          sheep’s milk     tempranillo

Mimolette (Fr)          cow’s milk     buttery Chardonnay

Asiago (It)          cow’s milk     pinot grigio/merlot


Raclette (Fr/Swiss)     cow’s milk     dry riesling

Taleggio (It)          cow’s milk     spicy white wine

Tomme de Savoie (Fr)cow’s milk     dry riesling

Gruyere (Swtz.)     cow’s milk     buttery Chardonnay


Camembert (Fr)          cow’s milk     buttery chardonnay

Brie (Fr)               cow’s milk     unoaked white wine


Stilton (Eng)          cow’s milk     port

Valdeon (Sp)          cow/goat milk     port or sherry

As the wines of southern Europe were role models for our wines, American cheese makers are following established Old World methods, but putting a New world stamp in their process.  Reminiscent to the 1976 Paris Tasting, some American cheeses are outscoring their mentors in global competitions. One example is the Rogue River Blue, produced by the Rogue Creamery in Oregon.  Designated “World’s Best Blue Cheese” in 2003 at the World Cheese Awards in London with several “Best of Show” from the American Cheese Awards, the Rogue River Blue, wrapped in grape leaves and expressing a brownish hue, lacks the sting and saltiness than some find difficult in blue cheese. Recently near the Rogue River Valley, I acquired and served some Rogue River Blue with honey and marcona almonds and a polished Sauternes from France.  You must try it because I could never explain how good it was. The following is a brief list of American boutique cheese that I have recently enjoyed.

Red Hawk (Ca)               robust/soft cheese     sparkling wine

Rogue River Blue (Ore)     mild/creamy blue          dessert wine

Plesant Ridge Reserve (Wi)     rich and nutty          dry riesling

Camellia (Ca)               creamy goat cheese     chardonnay

Humboldt Fog (Ca)           semisoft goat cheese      sauvignon blanc

Vermont Shepherd (Ver)     hard; sheeps milk     viognier



Research can be so arduous, but I made the sacrifice to contact Zina Miakinova, designated Cheese Lady from Le Vigne Winery in Paso Robles to arrange for a wine/cheese pairing.  Located in the northeast quadrant on Buena Vista Drive, Le Vigne specializes in semi-rare gourmet cheeses along with fine wines and creative blends.  Nothing enhances an experience more than exploring it with an expert.

A “cardinal rule” of pairings is that, in all instances, the cheese augments, but never distracts from the wine. Supporting this end, the process begins with a sniff and taste of wine, then the cheese, finishing with the wine. Although Le Vigne changes its pairings regularly, ours left us understanding that we had discovered something unique. The textures and flavors were perfectly balanced or counter-balanced and made each other better.

Pair #1:  Kiara Private Reserve Sauvignon Blanc with

          Chaubier (Fr). Chaubier is a semi-firm cheese made from half cow’s milk, half goat’s milk. Its mildly robustflavors and rich texture balanced well with the zesty and citric sauvignon blanc, aged in a variety of oak barrels.

Pair #2:  2008 Kiara Reserve Rose’ with Cranberry Le Roullee (FR).  One would expect pairing a sweet cheese with a rose’ to be a bit excessive.  However, this rose’ is a very dry, complex wine that consists of a blend of cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, syrah, merlot and cabernet franc, representing the Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone Valley regions of France.  With this rose’, the brain needs a few moments to overcome the anticipation of sweetness and focus on the dry flavors.  It needs something sweet and the Cranberry Le Roullee, a sweet, soft cheese infused with dried cranberries made this a decadent pair.

Pair #3:  2007 Le Vigne “Cuore della Vigna” with Casatica di Bufala (It)  Comprised mostly of cabernet sauvignon with a blend of petite sirah, cabernet franc and zinfandel grapes, the “Cuore della Vigna” assumes the characteristics of a Super Tuscan, earthy, while creamy and elegant.  Originating from the milk of Water Buffalo, apparently contributing the richest, sweetest milk of any dairy animal, this soft, ripened cheese coats the palate, fostering our ability to enjoy the richness of the wine. The obvious question still without an answer, “How does one milk a Water Buffalo?”

Pair #4:  2004 Le Vigne Syrah with Tipperary (Ire)

Seemingly an odd couple, we paired an aged, soft, jammy, fruit-forward wine with a biting, extra sharp Irish cheddar.  Both flavors have long finishes and, in some unexplainable way, they counter-balance each other perfectly.  The syrah was the best wine that I tasted and the extraordinary pairing experience prompt me to bring some of each home.

Pair #5:     2007 Le Vigne “Ame de la Vigne” with Valdeon (Sp)

Because, common practice is to pair a sharp, pungent blue cheese with a dessert wine such as a French Sauternes, I was anxious to find how the Valdeon, an esteemed Spanish blue wrapped in walnut leaves, would coalesce with this Rhone blend expressing rich fruit and spicy, herb flavors. Of course, the wine tamed the Valdeon and the results were wonderful.

Pair# 6:     2010 Kiara Bella Moscato with Cherry Gourmandise (Fr) Learning as I go, Zina surprised us at the conclusion of the pairing, with a sweet, melon flavored Muscat of Alexandria with the Cherry Gourmandise, a buttery, soft cow’s milk cheese, infused with kirsch, a liqueur distilled from cherries. Apparently, pairings such as this are common, popular because they impart a variety of rich, sweet flavors that are pure decadence.

Le Vigne Winery is a wonderful environment to enjoy cheese and wine tastings and is open to the public.  For those inclined, they have a wine/cheese club and also offer a “Decadent Flight” that pairs wine with fine chocolates.

When pairing wine and cheese, do some research on the texture and concentration of flavors of both and avoid letting the intensity of one overpower the other. Counter-balancing acidity and sweetness, such as a powerful blue cheese with a sweet dessert wine, is also important.

When serving cheese as a pre-dinner appetizer, think diversity of shape as well as texture and flavor, something easily done with cheeses from a specific country or region such as Sonoma County in northern California. Whatever you decide, always remember the essential rule to honor the wine.

Wine and J.S. Bach





It was billed as Bach & Bachanal: A Music and Wine Pairing Recital featuring nine pieces by composer Johann Sebastian Bach paired with seven European wines ranging from a sparkling Brut Riesling to an unusual Italian blend featuring two disparate grapes.IMG_0249

Peter Nelson, co-owner of Monopole Wine in Pasadena invested significant time researching the nuances of the music and thoughtfully used his skills as a master sommelier to pair it with fine European wines.  For example Bach’s Allemande E flat Major (Suite IV) is described as “a dance, both serious and amusing”.  In a 1739 review, Johann Mattheson called it “a serious and well-composed harmoniousness in arpeggiated style, expressing satisfaction and amusement, and delighting in order and calm”.

Defining it “an exceptional wine, serious, yet playful”, Peter selected the 2009 Von Buhl Sekt Brut Riesling, a German sparkler from Pfalz that immediately draws attention to its acidity and bubbles so as to lead you through balanced, citrus flavors, the calm in the music.  And so the evening began.

If one devotes an evening to attend a wine and Bach pairing recital, it’s best to be as trusting as possible. A totally open mind, an amenable palate and good listening skills can facilitate immersion into the moment and help to feel the beauty of the music with the texture of the taste.

None of this can occur unless the quality of the music can stand up to the wine.  Fortunately, we were privileged to have cellist Jevgenji Raskatov and violinist Amaruka Hazari to aptly manage the melody while enjoying each wine with us. I overheard someone say that Jevgenji was a biochemist in his day job, which I assumed was music.  Great minds and talent seem to abound in the Pasadena area surrounding Cal Tech.

Referencing Peter’s extensive research and knowledge, let me share my perceptions of the wines that were selected to enhance the unaccompanied cello and violin suites of Johann Sebastian Bach.bach-y

Music: Allemande E flat Major (Suite Iv)

Wine:  2009 Von Buhl Sekt Brut Riesling, Pfalz, Germany


As previously described, this wine is a highly acidic sekt, the traditional sparkling wine of Germany, Bach’s homeland.  The refreshing crispness does not 41t1+fyv+CL._AC_AA100_overwhelm as pleasant flavors of citrus fruit pass through the finish. This sparkler would also pair well with cheeses like Mahon (cow’s milk) or Humboldt Fog (goat’s milk), as both can be “serious, yet playful”.

Music:  Prelude D minor (Suite II)

Wine:   2009 Markowitsch Blaufrankisch Spitzerber, Austria

This piece seems to have been inspired by the joy of a walk on a crisp autumn day, an ambience of soft rain falling that our cellist superbly captured.  Quite possibly because it’s October and I took a late afternoon walk, I could feel the described “autumn earthiness” of the 2009 Markowitsch Blaufrankisch Spitzerber from Austria.

Apparently blaufrankisch is the country’s most dignified grape known for concentrated fruit flavors and an earthiness or “Teutonic” character. The wonderful aromas alone, balanced while casting a candied fruit bouquet, would have been a sufficient pair with this music.  Priced below $20, I was also inspired to bring a bottle home.Markowitsch_LogoRed

Music:  Sarabande G major (Suite II)

Wine:   2005 Chateau Canon, Fronsac, Bordeaux, France

The piece is a slow, purposeful dance that, although exquisite and full, is sad.  In Peter’s mind, it needs a nice red Bordeaux, “dark, earthy and just a little brooding, but very satisfying”.  While it has some age, the 2005 Chateau Canon, Fronsac is not over-powering, but has some depth and smokiness to its flavors.  There is a strong recommendation that this wine be consumed with this music by candlelight or an appropriate mood lighting app.31PEJwucAPL._SL500_AA300_

Music:  Allemande, Partita No. 2 BMW 1004

Wine:   2010 Schonborn Riesling Spatlese Trocken, Germany


The description of a Riesling Spatlese Trocken tells us that the grapes were harvested at their ripest form, just short of late harvest or “noble rot”, botryris.  However, they are not sweet, maintaining full pure fruit flavors and a perfect minerality.  It was noted that Schonborn has been producing wine since the 13th century and that Bach could easily have been enjoying a glass while composing this piece.  Peter’s aim was to pair “purity with purity” and the results were ideal.  When people speak of great German Riesling, this wine is what they are referring to.10413131t


Music:  Adagio, Sonata No 1, BWV 1001

        Sarabande in C Major (Suite III)

Wine:   Bert Simon Muller-Thurgau Beerenauslese. Germany


As we spoke earlier of the Spatlese Trocken, harvested at their fully ripened form, the Bert Simon-Muller-Thurgau Beerenaulese takes them beyond ripe, with a “botrytis” affected very late harvest. The result was aptly designated “nectar of the gods” and “made from the tears of angels”.  Rich, opulent, full-bodied, full-flavored, Peter sees the internalization of this wine and music leading to purification of the soul.  I see this wine having the same effect with Mozart, Sinatra or even Coldplay. As Peter defined the sonata as “utterly cathartic”, I was convinced that he found the proper therapeutic wine.


Music:  Bouree in C Major (Suite III)

        Minuet in G Major, 1 and 2 (Suite I)

Wine:   2010 Bouchard Auxey-Durresses, Burgundy, France


These pieces, both of French origin, are defined as lively dances with some seriousness. Selecting a traditional French wine for a French dance, the Bouchard Auxey-Durresses is a nice red Burgundy from the pinot noir grape.Bouteille_Auxey-Duresses_LesDuresses_300

The Burgundy region produces elegant wines with bold red cherry flavors and a soft minerality.  According to Peter, “the wine is clearly mimicking the dual character of the minuet”. To me, both were uplifting.


Music:  Prelude in G Major (Suite I)

Wine:   2006 Zenato Cormi, Veneto, Italy


The final piece, one of Bach’s most famous, features a series of motifs that “start with a quicker tempo and continues with great energy and melody and builds to an urgent climax before finishing in perfect balance”.

To this end, Peter has chosen a bold Italian blend from the Veneto region, not only because it completes a normal progression of our tasting, but because it combines merlot and corvina, grapes from French and Italian origins, expressing the influence of Italian soil. The results were highly intense fruit with a rich, cormi-lgcreamy finish.

Aside from being Jevenij’s favorite wine, Zenato Cormi is also known to pair well with our final surprise:  fresh creative chocolates from Pasadena-based “Mama’s Gone Cacao”.

Raskatov and Amaruka continued to play a few encore pieces that, along with the chocolate and wine, was a superb finale to a captivating evening.  The concept of pairing good wine and classical music is intriguing and, under the tutelage of a master sommelier, one can begin to feel the connections.  At a minimum, it is an opportunity to enjoy good music, fine wine and pleasant company.

Monopole Wine, located in Pasadena’s theater district, presents special tastings and classes on a regular basis that are describeded on their website.